Of Gods and Humans


I’m watching Of Gods and Men.  It’s about a group of French Trappist monks who chose to stay in their community rather than flee to safety during the Algerian civil war.  They were kidnapped in 1995 by terrorists, but their death was never explained.  Some have argued that Algerian soldiers killed them during a botched rescue attempt.  The first part of the movie shows the monks selling their own honey and vegetables in the market, offering medical care and advice to the locals, who are mostly Islamic.   When fundamentalists come to their town, the town leaders come to consult with the monks.  When the terrorists come closer and begin to kill all foreigners, the monks refuse military protection.  The Algerian army, in fact, is just as brutal and violent as the terrorists.   This beautiful movie highlights the monks’ incredible forbearance and dedication to peace.  It is a portrait of truly peaceful Christian practice, so unlike the practice of our mostly Christian, elected representatives, who wage war around the world and who never cease to find reasons to kill and main and destroy in the name of freedom.  But the film also highlights the peace and love that are central to Islam, as well, showing the daily lives of the people, their friendliness, their vulnerability, and their civility.  The terrorists are presented as men at odds with Islam, men who hardly know the Koran and who have a simplistic and militaristic interpretation of scripture.  They are not unlike those among us who vote for bombs and landmines and hatred for people who don’t worship the same god.

Since I have returned from Nepal I have reclaimed my sense that we are all united in a great web of being, of aliveness and no longer identify myself as an atheist.  Love is our greatest resource, the power most essential to our nature as well as the link between us all.  We are not singular and cut off from one another.  We only exist with one another, in relation to one another, and the relationship that we have with one another when we are being true to ourselves is loving.  We are true to ourselves when we treat each other with love and compassion.   Everything else about us—guns, violence, hatred, oppression, war—is against our truest nature.

Since I have embraced this essentially spiritual way of understanding the world, which was always very basic, if buried, in me, my attitude towards other believers, especially Christians, has changed.  I’m no longer angry.  I still disapprove of the many heinous crimes that Christians have committed and continue to perpetrate against other people.  I still dislike the masculinism underlying the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam), the ancient and arbitrary division between Self and Other that recognizes men as subjects and women as objects, but I have given up the burden of burning indignation.  My fury and resentment hurt me more than objects of my fury.  As Donna Farhi relates, “harboring resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”

The Dalai Lama was asked how he could feel loving kindness for the Chinese, who invaded his country, destroyed most of the monasteries, murdered thousands of Tibetans, and were continuing to repress and eradicate his people and culture.  He was silent for a long time, and finally answered that he distinguished between the act and the agent.  He could repudiate the actions of the Chinese but still feel compassion for the Chinese agents who brutalized his people.  They are suffering greatly, after all, because they have strayed so far from their true nature.

I am learning to separate terrible acts from their agents, who deserves my compassion. Patriarchalism and masculinism injures all of us.  What difference does it make whether we acknowledge a creator or not, if we all honor the essential divinity of the cosmos and dedicate ourselves to loving kindness?

I have felt a great deal of regret for my often disrespectful attitude towards other people’s faiths.  I was not always kind to my former partner Tim, who probably would have been a priest or monk in an earlier era.  He is well named.  Timotheus means lover of God.  His spirituality was one of the things that drew me to him most, so it is ironic that I should have dismissed his belief in Christ as his savior so rudely and thoughtlessly as I did at times.  I do not share his faith, but I respect it and identify with him as a person of spirit, a person who actively searches for deeper meaning.  He understands that we are not here simply to indulge our selfishness, but that we have souls and that our lives have greater significance.  Our different ways of understanding the divine should not divide us.  We are all looking for the same sense of refuge, belonging, and love.  That Tim and I were unable to find it with one another is sad, but not tragic.  Nothing lasts forever, and what we had was very important and beautiful.  Our love has not disappeared, it has only changed, shifted in focus.  It is not always easy for me to hold onto this truth, and it takes real work, prayer, and discipline to get through the tough moments.  I feel sadness, grief, and pain.  But I also feel lighter and freer as I let go of my attachment to him and discover the deep roots of my love for him, my sincere desire for him to be happy and well.   It’s going to be hard to pay my heating bill this winter.  I keep catching myself searching for quick fixes, as though a new romance or compelling passion will soothe the discomfort I feel facing the future alone.  The answer, the solution to my longing and unease in this world is not going to be found outside myself, not in another person, not in a new relationship, not in a new accomplishment, not in a more sculpted body, not in the publication of books, not in the acquisition of a well-paying and glamorous job, but rather only through a slow and steady practice that brings me in tune with my true self.

My true self is not the crazy tangle of thoughts and emotions that continuously run through my mind, nor my ever-changing body, but rather the silent, neutral witness of my experiences in the world.  It is this quiet aliveness, this prana, the shimmering vitality that I share with all other sentient beings, the life-force that courses through the forests, the oceans, the mountains, the rocks, the sun, the fiery core of our planet, the rivers, the plains, all plants, all organisms, even the stars themselves, that is my truest ground of being.  This is what Rainer Maria Rilke calls “the infinite ground of our deepest vibration.”  As he wrote,

Be in front of all parting as though it were already behind you,

Like the winter just gone by.

Because among winters is one so endlessly winter.

Only by over-wintering does your heart survive.

Be and know at that time the state of non-being,

The infinite ground of our deepest vibration

So that you may wholly complete it this one time.

Sonnets to Orpheus, 11.13.

Grown-up Breakups and the Green Tara


Shit, that was rough.  It didn’t seem so during the event.  I met my ex-boyfriend for dinner at our neighborhood extra-cool restaurant, ostensibly to thank him for all the wonderful things he did for me before I got home.  He stocked the fridge and pantry with all my favorite must-have items (greek no-fat yogurt, blueberries, pineapple, lactaid, brie, triscuits, whole wheat bread with sunflower seeds, diet iced tea in bottles, veggie burgers…), cleaned the house, left all the expensive appliances that he had paid for, including the t.v..  He picked us up at the airport and was welcomed us home warmly. It was so nice of him.  I am lucky to have him in my life, lucky to have known him.  I am grateful but I am also suffering.

Tonight, at dinner, he told me I looked beautiful and that I was an incredible woman. And that he really wanted to hold onto me as a friend and to be there for me as a friend.

I am indeed incredible.  I strain credibility.  I have let him go gracefully. I have not recriminated, I have not ranted, I have not insulted.  He has been nothing but kind in leaving me.  He remains my best friend, the person who supports and encourages in emails, the person to whom I tell many but no longer all of my concerns.

Sometimes in small moments I wonder if all this niceness isn’t coming straight out a seriously deserved sense of guilt.  Mine as well as his.  I was no wonder of rectitude, after all.  He left me for another woman, after all.  He denied this at the time and I entertained the tiniest shred of hope that this was true.  But tonight I asked him outright if he was dating the women he told me he was interested in before he broke up with me.  He outright admitted that he was seeing her and that it was really nice.

I’m so nice.  I said and meant that I hoped he would find love and that I wanted him to be happy. I do.

It is the oddest experience—to be really angry at someone and yet to forgive instantly, to love someone and yet to know that you need to let them go, to be relieved to have your solitude back and yet to mourn the loss of your former lover, to accept that you’re moving on and yet to keep freaking out about his having left you for someone else.

You say to yourself:

No way is she better than me.  I mean, his taste has really declined.

And then you admit:

…but maybe she’s better for him than I was.

Which leads to the happy thought:

And maybe there’s someone out there who is way better for me, too.

I have been looking for him for such a long time.  This time I’m not settling about anything. I will feel the earth move.  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his love is more delightful than wine.  Pleasing is the fragrance of his perfums, his name is like perfume poured out.

I’m glad, I’m glad, I’m so glad and relieved this time to be able to go through this without getting stuck in rigid “he did me wrong” discourse.  Also, I’m glad holding myself with compassion and gentleness and love as I face my suffering. This does not mean I place the burden of my suffering at his feet and demand retribution.  These are my problems.  Look: I choose to respond to this difficulty, this blow to my emotional and financial security with love and grace.  I chose grace.  Why chose anything else?

Suffering, dukha, is unavoidable.  I can’t opt out of the pain but I can choose how I respond to it.  I think writing about it, meditating about it, and crying about it is all an excellent form of ritualized mourning, a kind of kaddish that I am working through.  I’m trying to keep my eyes open.

I was talking to a friend (a friend? more than a friend? there’s always hope!) tonight about how weird it is to be back in the United States.  Everything is more or less the same. The gods dogs are the same, the garden is the same as it always is this time of year, the paintings and rugs and tables and chairs and dishes in my house are the same, the streets are the same, my neighbors are doing the same things, the pile of mail is the same pile of catalogs and come-ons, but I am different.  My body and mind have changed.   I was only there for two months but it transformed me tangibly in a way that I cannot yet describe.  I feel heavier, more rooted to the earth, as though the magnets in my soles had a stronger pull.  If I’m liable to floating off at a momentous breath, then I’m as likely to come come crashing back to the ground again, upright and on my feet.

I like being in my house by myself.  I love it here.  The wisteria and the grape vines are still alive, if parched.  The Echinacea is blooming into the heat.  The rosemary, symbol of the woman’s reign in the household, had held on, a small, scrubby branch.

Today I reclaimed my yoga/meditation room.  I set up an altar with the male and female manifestations of compassionate action—Avalokitseshvara and Green Tara.

For me, Green Tara is the most important deity/symbol in the Buddhist pantheon.  “ The Sanskrit root târ-means “to traverse” or “cross over” as in using a bridge to ford a stream.” Green Tara is pictured rising from her Lotus couch, one foot in the world, ready to help, actively involved in the alleviation of misery in the world.  Her name means what the modern Greek word metaphor means: a vehicle for carrying over, like a dolly that you use to move furniture from one place to another.  Similarly, linguistic metaphors don’t name the things they denote, they only transport meaning and by transporting make those things, those concepts, accessible.

Green Tara

Tara moves from one place to another, transports compassion from its abstract realm to the material realm, putting it into action.  A metaphor reaches out, spans a gap and, by connecting things together, makes the immaterial concrete, graspable.

I have been crying.

Crying releases stress and consoles the heart, they say.  For sure, you can’t pretend you’re not suffering or that you don’t need to be loved when you’re weeping.  But you don’t necessarily feel better afterwards.  You feel wrung out, over-infused with intensity, exhausted.  It is good if you can keep laughing. I often laugh after or while crying.  Joy and sorrow aren’t exactly opposed emotions. When you cry you feel vulnerable, and if you’re at all kind to yourself you will give yourself some slack.  Embrace your suffering with all the love that you would bestow on anyone else you love.

Having taken this advice seriously, I can now announce:

Hey! I just realized that I am HOME.

I’m in my house.  Today is my father’s birthday.  I have a gorgeous, large sepia-toned photograph of him in his prime, when he was still handsome. I’m at home in my father.  My father has come to rest at home in me.  That is a metaphor.

I ADORED my father, and also had a lot of trouble getting along with him.  Many regrets.  Still, I’m hereby honoring, toasting, him, thanking him for all that he gave me, for the skiing lessons, the encouragement, for never saying that I couldn’t do anything I wanted to because I was a girl.

Awesome job, Dad.  And I’m not talking about the money, even though you thought that was all anyone cared about.  I cared about you.

Switching away to JOY!!  I have everything I need right here.  My son is spending the night at his girlfriend’s house and

 I am alone in my own private space for the first time in 2 months.

The bathroom is clean, the toilet flushes without running all over the floor, the shower runs hot and cold, no one is watching me come and go, and I have air conditioning.  I can eat all the salad and fruit I want without getting diarrhea  and I am taking food out of my own refrigerator in my kitchen with its ancient linoleum floors.  I can dance around naked if I please.  It is a delightful freedom. I want to call up my friend J not to gloat but to share with her a delicious independence that she will best understand.

If you cannot find a companion who is better than or like yourself

You should make your way steadily, alone.

In the childish there is no companionship.

From the 5th chapter of the Dhammapada

The Dhammapada, or “Verses on the Way,” is a redaction of the Buddha’s teachings.  By “childish” the speaker, allegedly the Buddha, means something more expansive that the behavior and mentality that we expect from children.  He means people who, for whatever set of reasons, have not yet grown to maturity in their thought or feelings, who have not yet become “skillful.”

Later on the Dhammapada reads,

If one cannot find a mature friend,

a companion who is wise, living productively,

let him go alone,

like a king abandoning conquered land,

like an Elephant in the forest.

A life of solitude is better–

There is no companionship with a childish person.

Let one go alone and do no damage,

Like an elephant in the forest.

It is better to restrain the mind alone than to be restrained by someone else, better to conquer one’s own passions than to live tamed by someone else.  Like an elephant, the wise wayfarer governs her or his own passions, endures the insults and arrows inflicted by others. The wise practitioner does not go mad with rage because she or he keeps watch over thoughts and emotions.  She or he finds comfort in friends and in “contentment with whatever is.”

If you are reading Buddhist scriptures you are probably trying to wake up, to see more clearly, to understand the world better than you have so far.  You are trying to find your way out of the trance of reactivity, of emotional distress that leads to behaviors you later regret.  You know that dukkha, pain, is inevitable.  You know that don’t need to make it worse by beating yourself up about it.   And yet you do fall back into the trance, all the time, and you do occasionally wake up to yourself beating yourself up.  So you keep to the path, watch over your mind,  and look for people who are more or as skillful at this practice of discipline.

Have you ever been on a trek or a long hike with a really childish person?  Not a really young person.  Young people can be very old, very mature, very good company.  But I mean someone who is continuously grasping for attention, for reassurance, someone who boasts and struts or whines and manipulates or has to fill every bit of quiet with incessant jabber?  After a short while you begin to feel enervated, tired, impatient.  You grit your teeth, you endure.  You are not looking about you.  Your attention becomes very small, very focused on the source of irritation.  The Buddha says, “be compassionate to and with this person but do not expect much from them.  Walk steadily on.”

These are not the Buddha’s words.  I’m paraphrasing the lines above, which differ a lot from the classic masculine stiff-upper-lip mantras that Tupac Shakur parodies in his “Hold On.”

Hold On, Be Strong,

When it’s on, it’s on.

The same speaker who claims that he screwed up by smoking pot but now knows what’s “going on out there” and that “god don’t like ugly,” and that “you got to stand strong,” is getting high at the beginning of the song.  Thus everything he says has a double meaning.  He plays on the meaning of the word “strong” by identifying it with the aggressively self-defensive stance of the “black male” and the “thug for life.”  Tupac is not endorsing this thuggish identity, he’s putting it down. He’s  also saying that it’s not enough to “hold on” and “be strong,” to stoically endure without admitting to pain.  He’s also not campaigning against weed.  He’s observing that we are all vulnerable, we are all suffering, and we might want to think twice about the directive to suck it up and bear it.  We might want to show a little compassion to our own suffering, which will help us to acknowledge others’ suffering, and jolt us out of the fatal trance of the ego.

So when it comes round, Tupac’s refrain, “Hold on, Be strong” means exactly the opposite of what the stoned speaker says it means.  Tupac challenges the whole “black-man-as victim-of-the white-system” and asserts, “be strong” and “hold on” as a message that is far more complicated that its overt explication.  He urges his auditors to have faith in themselves as agents of positive change.  The Buddha says, “hang in there, endure your suffering, but do not discount it; acknowledge your reality, your dukkha”   Tupac says something similar.

To compare dukkha, human suffering, to a simplistic victim/oppressor mode of thought is to get stuck in rigid black/white ways of understanding reality.  You can’t simply deny it or refuse to talk about it.  And there is no point in going around blaming your ex for having hurt you, attacking defensively, lashing out in retribution.  It solves nothing and it’s childish.

No one is coming to save you except yourself.  It’s not a matter of belief, of abstract faith, but rather of action, of wise movement, of practice, of allowing Tara/Avalokitesvara to step off the virtual lotus of heavenly bliss into the world of suffering.  Step off your high horse of militant self-denial into your suffering heart, and find contentment in the movement, in the metaphor. Acknowledge your pain and be with yourself, alone, like an elephant in the forest. Thus you can

Pull yourself out of misfortune

Like an elephant, sunk in the mud.

Blood and Eggs at Passover and Easter


Many people celebrate the return of the growing season at this time of year without understanding the historical origins of the rituals they observe. This post revamps a column Lefthandofeminism wrote last year at this time to explain how men pushed women out of these holidays.

Christians have a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered god and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris restored by Isis, who was called “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old.”

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

The oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.  The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.

The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called "Ishtar Vase" from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

Lefthandofeminism finds this plausible but unlikely, given the traces of goddess worship in many different cultures across the globe, and her well-trumpeted lack of faith in any deity at all.

Lefty argues with Gerda Lerner in The Creation of Patriarchy that ancient peoples devised mythical explanations for patterns that they perceived in the universe.   Patriarchy began to rear its hideous head approximately in 2,500 B.C.E, but it did not become institutionalized until much later.  Human beings have been “human” or homo sapiens, with roughly the same brain capacity and instincts, for 200,000 years.   For most of human history, different peoples invented and worshipped both masculine and feminine deities.

Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is much older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god brought forth everything that exists.

Nevertheless, Lefty also thinks we should bring back the old rituals.   Instead of duly noting the passing of time in reverence to a male deity and his son, who are said not just to represent but also to be the origin and end of all life, we should spend  time meditating on the role that women play in creation and birth?

If the whole Judeo-Christan myth about the beginning of the cosmos makes little sense, even if you remember that it was invented by a relatively primitive and credulous group of people, that’s because it  is the transmutation of much older, Mesopotamian stories.  Some of these earlier myths include many of the same elements–the tree of life, the serpent, the prohibition of eating from a certain plant as are found in Genesis.  Only the religious tradition that these stories developed, and from which they grew, considered divine creativity to be fundamentally feminine.

Akkadian Cylinder Seal showing the tree of life 2330-2150 B.C.E.

Even in 700 B.C.E., when men had largely achieved the total manipulation and exploitation of women’s reproductive capacities–a feat that took millenia–even these arch-patriarchal people still respected women’s gestational and life-giving powers as sacred.

It was the ancient Hebrews who institutionalized patriarchy by divorcing divine creativity from feminine procreativity.  This did not happen overnight. The scriptures that Christians call the “Old Testament” recount hundreds of men having hot flashes about idolatry, particularly the worship of the old Mesopotamian gods and goddesses, of whom Astarte/Ishtar and Asherah were the most important and therefore the most hated.

Easter demonstrates the catholicity of the Church, its ability to adapt ancient customs in divers locations to Christian myth and to suppress the beliefs upon from which those customs developed.   However persuasive the Christians have been , early and late, dearly held practices and stories do not die easily.  That is probably why the name of for the goddess, Oestre, who symbolized fertility is still with us, not only for the holiday, but also as the name for a fundamental fact  of life.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  Wikipedia defines the estrous cycle as follows:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In the great s/f novel The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  we celebrated this time of year differently?

Not for a second does Lefty mean to suggest  that we all start worshipping the Moon.   Indeed it would be nauseating were women to begin identifying themselves with the heavenly body that male theologians and misogynists have for too long associated with the son/sun’s mirror.  We ought rather to spend the holiday reconsidering our myths, and recovering our history by talking about how the rituals and beliefs have oppressed one half of humanity for thousands of years.

Look, there are many ways to experience redemption–a term that recurs throughout the Hebrew scriptures and means, very simply, the recovery of a thing that had been alienated.   Patriarchal theology alienates women from the sacred.  It therefore alienates women from men, men from women.  In my view, the hierarchical paradigm that patriarchal theology enforces also alienates human beings from animals and the earth by insisting that one should rule over the other.  Can we please redeem each other, restore ourselves to sanity. starting now?

Being an atheist does not mean I do not value the rich symbolic and mythological traditions that human beings have developed over time.  We made those traditions, but they also made us. We understand ourselves the way we do because of those traditions, and by virtue of how we come to terms with them.

So here’s an idea: what if we were to celebrate Eostre and the estrous in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  O, so it turns out that feminine sexual desire and creativity are still associated with one another in language! Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

My boyfriend’s father, Joe, an incredibly loving and patient man, very recently died.   Joe was a devout Catholic.  His  son, by boyfriend, became an Episcopalian when the Catholics  refused to grant him communion because he had been divorced.

My friend stands in need of redemption, of recovering his unity with the father from whom he began, now that that beloved father is gone.  In other words, the  son has a psychological need to recoup (redeem) as much as he can, at whatever price.   And this all makes perfect sense.

Still, some prices are too high.  A feminist has a hard time knowing where to draw the line between sympathy for the  son and sympathy for the daughter, who has, after all,  been rather left out of that psychological-spiritual communion for all these years.

We are feminists and we love and have friendly understandings for our sons (and for our partners, male and female, who have lost their fathers).  Our sympathy does not enervate our just irritation.

Go, gadfly!

Naked Truth


Nuda Veritas, Gustav Klimt

The quotation from Schiller, “Kannst du nicht allen gefallen durch deine Tat und dein Kunstwerk, mach’ es wenigen recht; vielen gefallen ist schlimm,” loosely translated, reads “If your deed and your art do not please everyone, do it as well as you can; pleasing everyone sucks.”

The painting scandalized bourgeois Viennese art viewers because it shows pubic hair.  I see a woman, possibly dangerous, possibly vulnerable, and probably blind.  She stands bare before the viewer, holding a lamp, like a sage, a prophet who leads the way to the truth.

She also resembles the Hermit, the the ninth trump or Major Arcana card in most traditional Tarot decks:

This card is also associated with Joseph Campbell’s description of the hero who “ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons” (The Hero with a Thousand Faces).  The Hermit has gone into the darkness, or the desert, and returned wiser, like Jesus, or the Buddha.

Klimt’s Hermit directly confronts her spectators, looking not at them, but rather within. As in the Tarot, she represents introspection, silence, spiritual knowledge achieved after much suffering.  She is wisdom.

A story  tells of an old hermit who carried a lit lantern around the village and the area day and night, even in daylight. One day the villagers had enough curiosity to ask him “Sir, why do you carry your lantern lit in daylight?” He said, “Because I’m searching for an honest man.”  Nuda Veritas, presenting herself wholly, nakedly, innocently, demands to know which among her detractors is so free from failure that he or she may cast the first stone.

In the Bible, Wisdom is also a woman:

Wisdom speaks her own praises,

in the midst of her people she glories in herself.

She opens her mouth in the assembly of the Most High,

she glories in herself in the presence of the Mighty One…

Alone, I have made the circuit of the heavens

and walked through the depths of the abyss.

Over the waves of the sea and over the whole earth,

and over every people and nation I have held sway. (Ecclesiasticus 24: 1-7)

Wisdom also comes to humanity through a woman.  Genesis 3:6: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.”  In the Book of Wisdom the narrator, allegedly Solomon, refers to Wisdom as the “designer of all things” (Wisdom 7:21) and says

Although she is alone, she can do everything;

herself unchanging, she renews the world,

and, generation after generation, passing into holy souls,

she makes them into God’s friends and prophets;

for God loves only those who dwell with Wisdom. (Wisdom 7:27-28)

Wisdom is identified with the creative, shaping power of the deity as well as with divine understanding, Reason.  But in Klimt’s picture, the figure represents a wisdom gained through blindness to the world and faithfulness to one’s inner sight.  She stands before us, utterly vulnerable to our gaze, and utterly indifferent to it.  She attends to something other than the voice of the crowd, the world, the critics.  Like Sri Nisargadatta, who said,

All you need is already within you.
Only you must approach yourself with reverence and love,

Klimt’s hermit heroine urges us to say, with her, “I am,” in word, deed and art, and to accept nothing less or more than that.

Tawakul Karman: Brave Muslim Feminist Arrested in Yemen


Tawakul Karman at an anti-government rally outside Sanaa University. Photograph: Khaled Abdullah/Reuters

What is happening in Yemen and why should we care?  Tawakul Karman, a feminist activist was arrested today for her role in student demonstrations against the government last week.  She and her husband, Mohamed Ismail al-Nehmi, were making their way home yesterday evening when the police came for her.  He has no idea where she is.  “Maybe at the central prison, maybe somewhere else, I don’t know.”

Tawakul Karman is the president of Yemen’s Women Journalists without Chains and a member of the Islamist opposition party, Islah.  She has frequently criticized the brutal, militarized government of Ali Abdullah Salah, who has dominated Yemini politics since 1978.

With two civil wars, an Al-Qaeda presence and 40 percent unemployment, what else is President Saleh waiting for? He should leave office,

she is reported as saying in Yemen Post.

Karman has led sit-ins every Tuesday to protest the government’s repression of civil rights, particularly women’s rights.  She has called for “allocating 30% of the posts of governors, cabinet members and ambassadors to women and establishing a binding law ensuring a fair and equitable share in legislative assemblies for a real participation of women,”[Source: Hiwar] and has attacked the Minister of Information for persecuting the media in general and for attempting to prevent her organization, Women Journalists without Chains (WJC), from publishing a newspaper and sponsoring a radio, in particular.   She has also advocated taking off the veil.  In a recent interview by WJC, she said:

I discovered that wearing the veil is not suitable for a woman who wants to work in activism and the public domain. People need to see you, to associate and relate to you. It is not stated in my religion [Islam] to wear the veil, it is a traditional practice so I took it off.

Until today, her outspokenness has brought the usual intimidation.  In that same interview, she stated,

I was threatened to be imprisoned and even killed. So far, the threats have not been fulfilled although I consider that taking away my right to expression is worse than any form of physical violence.

Will we hear from Tawakul again?  Probably not, unless the international community speaks out.  The government of  Ali Abdullah Saleh is not friendly to women  dissidents.

On January 13, 2011, just ten days ago, government security forces fired live bullets and molotov cocktails into a peaceful demonstration of women in Hadramawt and Lahij provinces. Security forces killed Nouria Saleh Maktoof, by running her down.  They severely injured Zainab Shakir Bin Thabi with bullets in Hadramawt province, and maimed Nathra Salih with bullets in Lahij province.  [Source: Women Journalists without Chains]. WJC condemned these acts:

The organization announces its full condemnation of the oppression and assault perpetrated on the peaceful demonstrators by the security forces, and considers it state violence directed against women, and a grave violation of the fundamental right of citizens to assembly and freedom of expression, which are basic human rights. It considers this state terrorism and official state violence clashing with all local and international agreements and charters guaranteeing these rights and Yemen’s pledges to respect and protect these rights

These are very strong words, words that clearly make the government of President Saleh deeply uncomfortable.  But will they be heard?  What change can women activists like Tawakul Karman and her sisters in the WCJ really bring about?

What is going on in Yemen is not that different from what has been happening across the Arab world for the past 40 or 50 years.  A long-entrenched government of quasi-secular dictators whose power depends on the military, propped up by western powers, now faces a passionate outburst by its long-oppressed populations.  Unfortunately, the voice of these justly angry people is not the voice of Tawakul Karman, which is currently in danger of being snuffed out in some dark prison, but rather the voice of Islamic fundamentalism.

I’m not quite sure why Karman has allied herself with Islah, which is also known as the “Reform” Party in Yemen.  The official name of this political party is  “Yemeni Congregation for Reform” (al-Tajammu‘ al-Yemeni lil-Islah), which was established shortly after the 1990 unification of North and South Yemen,  “to be a lively continuation of the modern Yemeni Reform movement and a framework for all who seek to reform and change the current situation to a better one guided by Islamic faith and Shari’a.” [Source: “Political Action Program of the Yemeni Islah Party”, cited by Anahi Alviso Marino].

Any government that is founded on a religious platform, even a Buddhist platform (look at what the Buddhists have done to the Tamils in Sri Lanka), is going to end up persecuting someone, particularly women.  Consider the transformation of Iraqi society since our catastrophic invasion.  Women who used to work and move through society in secular clothing have been banned from their jobs and forced to cover themselves with the hijab and burqa.  A similar, tragic  transformation took place in Iran.

To point out that a turn from a secular-tribal patriarchal state, such as existed under Saddam Hussein or Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, to a religious patriarchal state, is a tragedy is not to say that military dictatorships or autocratic states are good for women.  Clearly, they are not.  My argument is that the people will never be free as long as the women are oppressed, and women are always oppressed under religious leadership.

For the last 10,000 years most of the religions that have grown up on this planet have centered on masculine deities and been dominated by male priests, who helped to entrench patriarchal forms of government.  There have, of course, also been many dissident women who have resisted their disenfranchisement, but most of these women have been silenced or controlled and prevented from making any serious challenge to the universal ideology of patriarchy, which states that men are superior to women.

I understand that women feminists and democrats who have been raised within a religion find it difficult to leave it.  And in many countries, including our own, it is simply not possible to make any headway as a politician without espousing the dominant religion.  And yes, I can see the wisdom of a moderate approach, which works to reform a society from within its major institutions, whether they be Islamic or Christian or Hindu, as a means to appeal to the majority of the people.   I can admire reformers who take this path, but I can’t consider this a very clean path.

It’s simply not intellectually honest to sign up for a religion, any religion, that in word and practice continually reiterates the falsehood that masculinity is superior to femininity.

So, we should care what’s happening in Yemen because, like many modern Arab states, it is politically halfway between autocracy and democracy and civil unrest could tip it into theocracy.  The recent calls for greater democracy and freedom for all the people, which are heard all across the Arab world these days, are likely to usher in a “Reform” movement and a religious government, or a theocratic “republic” in which the mullahs and the ministers will suppress women like Tawakul Karman.  Such an outcome would be a terrible irony, of course, since Karman will have helped to bring about the revolution.   We should not support such a revolution, but rather should call for greater democracy and civil rights for women within a secular government.  We should not make the same mistakes in Yemen than we have made in Iran and Iraq.

The Origins of Easter and some thoughts about fertility and gadflies


220px-Ostara_by_Johannes_GehrtsChristians celeberate a feast day called “Easter,” on which they honor a murdered son and his miraculous return to life through the power of the Father.  This story reinterprets the much earlier, Babylonian myth of Osiris, in which Isis, “the Giver of Life,” mother of the sun, and “oldest of the old,” restores Osiris to life, mates with him, and then begets a falcon-headed sun-god, Horus.  Representations of Isis suckling her son were commonly associated with Mary and Jesus from the 5th century, A.C.E., onwards.

 

Jews celebrate a kind of renewal of life during Pesach, or Passover, and recall the time when the Destroying Angel “passed over” those houses whose doorways had been sprinkled with blood, but killed the firstborn sons of all others, giving Pharoh yet another powerful sign that he should release the Jews from captivity.

Blood and eggs feature prominently in both Easter and Passover.   Christian children hunt for and devour eggs that a magic rabbit has hidden, and Jews place a roasted or hard-boiled egg, the Beitzah on the Seder plate to commemorate and mourn the sacrifices that they used to make in the destroyed Temple. But the Beitzah also symbolizes the joyful return of life at springtime.

A tradition that appears to predate Judaism and Christianity, whose traces have lingered in the Middle East, Asia, and Old Europe, is the honoring of women’s power to give birth, symbolized again by blood and eggs.  Decorated goose eggs were found in a German grave that dates back to the 4th century.   Lithuanians began to decorate and share eggs with one another at least as early as the 13th century.  Common motifs on these eggs are  spirals, suns, teeth, trees, flora and birds.  According to  Lithuanian historian Marja Gimbutas, who pioneered archaeomythology, an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that combines archaeology, mythology, ethnology, folklore, linguistic paleontology, and the study of historical documents,  these symbols represent fertility goddesses worshiped by the people of ancient Europe.

Persians have exchanged red-colored eggs to celebrate the beginning of their solar year for millenia.

According to Bede, the Northumbrian monk living c. 720 A.C.E., the oldest origins of Easter began in rituals for Eostre, or Ostara, a Saxon goddess associated with the Moon.The moon-hare was sacred in both eastern and western ancient practices.  When Charlemagne, King of the Franks and Holy Roman Empire, defeated the Saxons in 700s, all the months of the year were changed from their Latin names.  April was called “Osteranoth” in Frankish and Ostermonat in German.  Jacob Grimm speculated that the German equivalent “Ostern” derived from the name of the same goddess, Ostara, or Oestre.

A goddess with a similar name is found on some Roman altar stones from the Lower Rhine in North-West Germany.  These altars were dedicated to local mother goddesses, who frequently appeared as triple deities and were associated with fertility.   Similar altars dedicated to goddesses with Celtic names occur throughout northern Italy, France, Spain, and Britain, where the goddesses often have Celtic names.  Very close to St. Bede’s  Easterwines monastery at Monkwearmouth there is an ancient Roman fort where many inscriptions are found on an altar dedicated to Astarte, the Syrian and Phoenician fertility goddess.

Detail of ancient Mesopotamian so-called “Ishtar Vase” from Larsa, early 2nd millennium BC. The pubic triangle and belly-button are heavily emphasized, while the breasts were crudely scratched in as an afterthought.

Some scholars believe that Isis and Astarte are Egyptian and Syrian names for the same moon goddess whom the  Europeans worshipped.

As historian Richard Sermon observes, the name Ostare or Easter may derive from this goddess’s name:

It is theoretically possible to project forward the name Astarte to an intermediate *Astare or *Astre, which could then have appeared in Old English orthography as Eostre/Eostre. Furthermore, there is an earlier precedent for this intermediate name on the bilingual gold tablets from Pyrgi in Italy (c.500 Bc), that contain dedications to the Phoenician goddess Ashtaret… and her Etruscan counterpart Astre …

 Sermon also rightly points out that
 It is spurious to suggest that the early Church (centered around the eastern Mediterranean) would have timed its most important festival to coincide with that of a north European pagan goddess.

Nevertheless, the timing of the festival and the symbols with which it is associated, eggs and rabbits, also suggest that the Christian feast adapted local customs that far precede Christian practices.  Archaeological evidence strongly indicates that human belief in feminine deities as creators of all life is older than the current, dominant myth that a male father-god.

Fertility celebrations are found throughout ancient European and Mediterranean regions.  The Saxons, the Irish, and the Persians  all kept a movable feast on the first day of the week after the first full moon of the Spring equinox.

Bohemians also had a ritual on the day after Oestre Sunday, which was a “Moon-day,” in which village girls sacrificed the “Lord of Death” by throwing him into the water and singing,

Death swims in the water, spring comes to visit us,

With eggs that are red, with yellow pancakes,

We carried Death out of the village

We are carrying Summer into the village.

Ritualistically casting death into the river, the villagers celebrated the return of the growing season and new life, preparing for summer’s bounty with red eggs and sun-shaped and colored food.

“Oestre “also is the source of our scientific term, estrous, from the Latin Oestrus and the  Greek οἶστρος).  The Oxford English Dictionary defines the estrus cycle as

the period of sexual receptivity and fertility during the reproductive cycle of most female mammals; the time of being in heat.

Lefthandofeminism likes Wikipedia‘s version better:

The estrous cycle comprises the recurring physiological changes that are induced by reproductive hormones in most mammalian placental females. Humans undergo a menstrual cycle instead. Estrous cycles start after puberty in sexually mature females and are interrupted by anestrous phases or pregnancies. Typically estrous cycles continue until death. Some animals may display bloody vaginal discharge, often mistaken for menstruation, also called a “period”.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, all people of the planet Gethen experience estrus cycles, or periods of “kemmer,” which come and go.  As Le Guin observes,

Consider: Anyone can turn his[sic] hand to anything.  This sounds very simple, but its psychological effects are incalculable.  The fact that everyone between seventeen and thirty-five or so is liable to be…’tied down to child-bearing’ implies that no one is quite so thoroughly ‘tied down’ here as women, elsewhere, are likely to be–psychologically or physically. Burden and privilege are shared out pretty equally; everybody has the same risk or choice to make.  Therefore nobody here is as free as a free man anywhere else.

Consider: There is no division of humanity into strong and weak halves, protective/protected, dominant/submissive, owner/chattel, active/passive.

Imagine how extraordinary our world would be if, instead of obediently rehearsing these polarities in the liturgies of the Jewish, the Christian, and the Muslim traditions,  every year, we celebrated this time of year by considering the sexes as equals, as companions, as equally powerful and active agents.

What if we were to celebrate Eostre and the oestrus in Easter by recognizing our commonality with mammals, who, like us, give birth by virtue of the blood that softens our wombs and ebbs and flows in us, like the river of life?  What if, instead of lording it over mammals and all other animals, or granting supremacy to those who do lord around, we celebrated our mutual dependence on one another and on the planet from which all life springs?

We should especially celebrate  the oestrus, the gadfly that, by stinging, moves the more bovine among us out of the mud, where we are wallowing.

Let us also remember that the figural meaning of estrus and oestrus is “Something that incites a person to passionate, esp. creative, activity.”  Let’s all be gadflies tomorrow and incite one another to passionate bursts of creative activity.

And really–to all of you who celebrate the holiday, Happy Easter!